Culebra, Sneffels, El Diente, Wilson, Capitol (#54!!!)

23 Jun - 1 Jul 2006 - by Bill Stafford

Part I...

My job will soon take me to Romania for 3 months. This is exciting, but tempered by the disappointment of losing a Colorado summer. With only 5 peaks to go to finish the 54 ""official"" 14'ers Well, gosh, I simply can't wait till '07 to finish, I gotta get 'em in '06, as planned. So I told my boss I would be unavailable till after the 4th of July holidays, and headed out for a bit of harried peak bagging.

I left work at lunchtime, Friday, 6/23. First stop, San Luis, and a date with Culebra Peak on Saturday. I had this one scheduled with the Cielo Vista Ranch people since mid-May, so it worked out well with this sudden job assignment.

The San Luis Inn, a small, clean hotel, provided a comfortable nights rest, before peak-day. ($55) And although I am no longer a religious person (I was raised Catholic), the town boasts ""The Stations of the Cross"". A dirt trail switchbacks up a small hill on the towns northwest end. One may wend their way up the trail, admiring the magnificent bronze statuary depicting the story of Christ's crucifixion. At the top of the hill is a small chapel. Very artistic, very beautiful.

Awoke at 5 a.m. on Saturday and drove 15-20 minutes to the ranch's gate. There were about 20 others waiting around also, some who had obviously slept at the gate, either in tents or in their cars. Promptly at 6 a.m., a ranch hand showed up, opened the gate, got back into his vehicle, drove through the gate opening, and pulled over. No further word, instruction, direction.... nothing. We all stood around for a second, and then someone got into their car, and drove through the gate and up the road. And thus the rest of us. I felt like a lemming, deciding I would not drive over a cliff just because the guy in front of me did so.

We stopped at a cluster of buildings, paid the man the Cielo Vista bargain basement $150 price of admission, (Grrrr!) and were told we could begin our hike. (All kidding aside, the ranch hand turned out to be fairly cordial.) We could start our hike from here, or drive up to Fourway. I think only a few chose to hike from here, most went on to Fourway, including myself and a passenger who requested of me a ride, so that we may have fewer cars cloistering the way ahead.

I left Fourway at about 6:55 a.m., largely following Roach's route to Culebra's summit, arriving at 9:20 a.m. Clouds were beginning to gather, and Red Mountain lay beckoning. It took 1 hour reach it's summit, and I then returned to my Forerunner at Fourway, arriving at 1:10 p.m.

This may appear to be an abrupt ending to an otherwise descriptive story. I am not implying this is a dull hike... on the contrary. It is a beautiful, wonderful hike, with magnificent views. One of the hikers (alas, not I) spotted a bear running across a meadow. But quite frankly, not much needs to be said about the hike that has not already been said in another trip report.

Part II...

Drove from San Luis to Durango after finishing Culebra. On Sunday morning, I found an internet cafe, got online, called a few hotels in Ouray, and booked two nights at the least expensive... the Ouray Hotel, $45 a night. Twin bed, not much room around it to maneuver, a shower and cable (satellite?) TV. And an excellent hotel. One of the cleanest place in which I have probably ever stayed.

On Monday morning, I drove 1/2 hour to Yankee Boy Basin Trailhead at 10,700', beginning my hike at about 6:35 a.m. If one were so inclined, and had a good 4-wheeler, one could drive a lot higher, say 12,000+ feet.

I hiked the standard ""South Slopes"" route, up Scree/Lavender Col, continuing up the ""obvious, deep couloir leading toward the summit."" It contained only about 150' of snow. I summitted about 10:15 a.m. A few clouds were already starting to gather, so I did not stay long.

Going up the snow couloir was not a problem, but I should have brought my ice axe. This is a pretty darn steep couloir, and I didn't feel comfortable ""plunge-stepping"" the downclimb. Slip once, and it would be a quick, likely fatal ride to the rocks below. So I slid on my bum, whacking my heels into the relatively soft snow as I went, ensuring each foothold before sliding down further. It took awhile, but it got me through, if not safely. I arrived back at the trailhead at 1:15 p.m.

Back to Ouray (what an awesome town, simply beautiful views) for another night of comfort, before heading for Navajo Lake and my El Diente / Mount Wilson adventure.

Part III...

I had breakfast in Ouray on Tuesday morning, drove to Ridgway for a few supplies, and then on to Navajo Lake Trailhead west of Telluride. This will be my third visit to Navajo Lake, with a summit of Wilson Peak twice, first with a buddy who twisted his ankle and could not continue with the El Diente/Mount Wilson cirque. The other visit was with an ex-girlfriend, and I blame myself for not having prepared properly for these two peaks. We were under-equipped, and again I had to settle for a Wilson Peak summit. Third times a charm, right?

I awoke Wednesday morning at 3:30 a.m., heading south from the west end of 11,154' Navajo Lake to El Diente's west ridge. The scree is enough to make one scream. It took me from 4 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. just to reach the bottom of the ridge at 11,600'. Cripes, I was hoping to summit in 3 hours. It ain't straight forward from here, either. There are several times one must descend from the ridge, and cairnage is spare, at best. I arrived at the summit at 8:30, tired and somewhat frustrated, but determined to do the traverse. There were few clouds, but I knew the forecast was for rain before noon.

I left the summit at 8:50 a.m., took a few steps down, and almost killed myself. I had reached over my right shoulder to grasp a large boulder, using it to let myself down a large step. That boulder must have been in that spot for time immemorial, but I'll bet another month or two of rain would have sent it downhill. My slight tugging was enough to pull it down. It slid from it's perch, skimming my right hip/thigh/knee, bouncing me off a boulder on my left, which left my left thigh with one of those deep thigh bruises, and my anguished screech. The rock stopped an inch from my right foot. It was somewhat cubic in shape, about 3-1/2 feet to a side, and I'll bet it weighed 500 pounds. It sent a few other large rocks down the north side, I'm sure resulting in upward stares by those still sitting in Navajo Basin.

Okay, that was fun. Now on to the good stuff. I had written Roach's description in reverse, and proceeded down the north side of the ridge as described. Things are well cairned, albeit one has to search a bit now and then, and things went well, until somewhere in the middle of the coxcombs, when the full fury of the thunderstorm that had been brewing for the last hour had arrived. I was pelted with snowy hail, and thunder was all around. My helmet began arcing electricity to the top of my right ear. Yikes! This ain't good. Off with the helmet, off with my pack, with its ""lightning rod"" ice axe. I'll just hunker here on the side of this high ridge. Things should be better in just a bit, right?

Well, indeed, things did get better, as evidenced by this writing. After about 10 minutes of hunkering, the brunt of the storm had passed, and I continued on to Wilson's summit, arriving at 11:20 a.m., 2-1/2 hours after leaving El Diente. Ha! Take that weather gods! (That's the last time I tempt fate, though. I swear!)

The descent from Wilson is arduous, at best. Lots of talus, and steep. I couldn't find the courage to descend any of the upper snow slopes, despite having snow pants and an ice axe. They were simply too steep and kinda curvy, with rocks awating a curve's end. No nice runouts here. So I hiked. And hiked. Arriving at camp a bit before 4 p.m. Nothing says fatigue better than a 12-hour hike, complete with brushes with death. A night of high altitude recovery, hike back to the trailhead in the morning, and I'll be off for the Snowmass area and Capitol Peak.

Part IV...

I arrived in Basalt on Thursday afternoon, never having visited this town before. Very nice. Lots of tourist and local activity, mountain bikers, rode bikers, etc. I rented a room at the ""Green Drake"", off the main street. ($75) I don't know if there were cheaper places, but I didn't feel like exploring much, and this place looked like it was nearer the ""bargain"" end of things. The room had no air conditioning, and the day had been near 90 degrees. But it cooled off well, and the receptionist provided me with a fan.

I quickly showered, drove a few miles back toward Carbondale to a small plaza on the west side of CO-82, had a quick bite and took in the new ""Superman Returns"" movie. (Nothing more relaxing than a good movie.)

I had breakfast at little bagel/coffee shop on Friday morning, checked up on work-related things on the internet at the library.'s weather link showed 40% chance of rain before noon for the next few days. Ahh, what do they know. That had been the forecast for my El Diente/Wilson hike, and look how accurate it had been. Actually, I guess it had been pretty damn accurate. But who allows weather forecasts to dictate their outdoor activity. I sure shan't. Thus, I was off for Capitol Creek Trailhead around 11:30 a.m.

...and on the trail at 12:30 p.m. I took the ""longer, more scenic trail on Capitol Creek's west side"", mainly to avoid the initial 400 foot descent on the primary route, and save having to regain that elevation later. What an awesome hike, with stunning views. It took me 4 hours to reach Capitol Creek. There were only a few campsites taken, and I ended up at #5, which I felt was a fine site indeed. About 10 seconds after clamoring into my tent with a big bowl of steaming, freeze-dried-something-or-other and some hot chocolate, snowy hail began pelting my tent, and a thunderstorm unleashed. Perfect timing. I'm snug as a bug.

Early start again, 4 a.m. The climb is initially stiffly uphill... good morning, America! I reached the 12,500' saddle by 4:50 a.m., and continued south across several snow gullies. The early morning snow was still fairly hard, and I had to kick steps with some degree of fortitude. I was thankful for my ice axe, as it would be disastrous to slip on one of these slopes. As I came to the basin preceding Point 13,664', and eyed the rather large snowy basin I had yet to cross, I decided I had had enough of step-kicking. I bee-lined it straight up on the talus (and a bit of Class 4 action) to a point well west of Point 13,664', closer to my K2 destination. After getting past the hairy stuff, and gaining the talus field leading to K2, I turned to watch another party of 5 crossing the snow field I had just avoided. Was the lead guy (Ron, a paid guide) actually chopping steps with his ice axe? I'm glad I avoided that stuff.

K2? No problem. Descent from K2, a little more difficult, but not too bad. Knife edge? What's all the fuss? Follow the cairns after the knife edge, proceed through a few Class 3 and 4 areas. (I'm being facetious. But seriously, this stuff is just plain fun.)

As I near the summit, I choke back tears. My first 14'er was Bierstadt, February 13, 1998, a full moon, winter. We summited on a clear, calm evening at midnight, and I was hooked.

And now here I am, #54, Capitol Peak, 8-1/2 years later, a beautiful blue sky morning, 1st day of July, 2006, 7:45 a.m.

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